GREENVILLE, S.C. — After the prayer, before the lengthy and worrisome report on a local school board’s wasteful spending, the Greenville Tea Party enjoyed a little joke about Kevin McCarthy.
“On November 12, [state] Rep. Wendy Nanney will be our guest speaker, and I think I’m gonna ask her to address the Syrian refugee situation,” said Ron Tamacchio, 72. “On December 11, Speaker Gowdy will be here.”
Two dozen Tea Party activists chuckled quietly at the mention of their congressman, Rep. Trey Gowdy. Just hours after McCarthy abandoned his bid for speaker of the House of Representatives, the California Republican was an afterthought, a punchline. Five years after he helped the Republican Party take over Congress, the ambitious McCarthy was another scalp.
According to the Greenville Tea Party, McCarthy did it to himself. It was bad enough that the would-be speaker undercut Gowdy, a figure who commanded real trust, with a damaging gaffe last week implying that the Benghazi Select Committee was created to hurt Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign. His sins went beyond that and encompassed all sorts of threats to conservatism.
“If you go to the Heritage Foundation Web site,” said Don Rogers, 76, “McCarthy’s score is something like 63 percent.”
That contrasted poorly with Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who as Rogers immediately remembered scored 80 percent.
“I’ve heard good things about Chaffetz, and the other one — Webster,” said Rogers’s wife Pat, 64, referring to Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida. “The local radio was talking him up. They weren’t talking up McCarthy.”
Jan Williams, 69, said that he’d seen even more rough ratings for McCarthy — and not just from Heritage. “The freedom groups have been sending out e-mails, telling us he’s wrong for the job,” he said. “I can’t remember what the reasons were exactly, but I agreed with them. Plus, he’s from California, and they’re all RINOs [Republicans in Name Only] out there.”
The retirement of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) had been celebrated by the tea party, and by the many conservative groups that either grew out of or latched onto that movement. McCarthy’s failure to replace Boehner was a kind of aftershock — and more proof, for a Republican Party hardly in need of it, of how little trust it commands from its base. As majority whip then majority leader, McCarthy gave his party’s insurgents so much room to act that they frequently stymied him. His loose-leash approach had, for a while, prevented him from becoming a figure of right-wing derision like Boehner or one-time majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.
McCarthy had even attended a tea party rally, though the circumstances foreshadowed his fall. In 2009, he invited himself and Boehner — both of them deep in the minority — to an April 15 rally in Bakersfield, Calif.
Neither was allowed onstage.
“That was pretty spectacular,” local radio host Inga Barks told Bakersfield’s Eyewitness News.
“We wanted to go to show support, we wanted to go listen, and that’s exactly what we did,” insisted McCarthy.
Back in Washington, Boehner and McCarthy informed colleagues that the restive conservative movement, under the tea party banner, could bring them to power. “The people participating in these protests will be the soldiers for our cause a year from now,” Boehner said, according to a New Yorker profile that only ran after he was proven right.
Five years later, the remaining soldiers had little use for McCarthy. Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), who ousted Cantor in a 2014 primary, told NBC News on Thursday that the existing House leadership as represented by McCarthy had throttled the legislative process, and that the Freedom Caucus of “30 to 40 principled guys” would restore it. In interviews, tea party leaders said that McCarthy had never truly been with them.
“Of all the people I was dealing with in 2010, I never heard McCarthy’s name come up,” said Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation, which organized the first (and only) national tea party convention that year. “Nobody ever talked about him. I don’t know how much credit he really is due for that — it was really the tea party movement that fueled 2010.”
Some tea party leaders wondered what they’d wrought. “I think the current influence of the tea party itself is probably de minimus,” said Dick Armey, the former House majority leader who led the tea-party-friendly FreedomWorks until 2012. “It’s probably the same thing we had in 1998: The strong-willed conservatives have critical mass. Frankly, I haven’t talked to any of these guys, but I know that McCarthy tried to reach out to them, but he had a backlash. That’s what happened to me: The conservatives said I was too nice to the liberals and the liberals said I was too nice to the conservatives.”
The Greenville Tea Party did not disagree. Its Thursday meeting was mostly given over to Alex Saitta, a blogger and activist who demystified local school budgeting in a numbers-heavy, eye-straining series of charts. Conservatives needed to do their research and avoid blind trust in the leaders who ask for their votes.
“I like Donald Trump,” Saitta said. “I like that attitude of, ‘I don’t care if you like me or not. I don’t want to be friends.’ Too many people fall into that. They lie to get in, then they change their views to fit in.”